by Fiona M. Jones

It used to be all about keeping children clean and safe. All of the guidance to teachers and parents was aimed at eliminating physical risks to children. But then studies began to show that indoor living, a lack of autonomy, and preventing exposure to all germs, leaves children low in resilience, emotionally unstable, and ill-prepared to meet normal life challenges.

In Scotland, where I live and work parttime as a teacher, child mental health issues had begun rising out of control. So, primary-school teachers received instructions to run “Outdoor Learning” activities involving elements of mild physical risk.

I had done it all before as a parent, before it became societally acceptable: the mud and the water, the trekking and tracking, the thousand things you can do with sticks. You might imagine I’d be an expert at delivering the Great Outdoors to my classes. The reality is, however, that leading a large, incurious, and often volatile group with wide-ranging individual needs outdoors is terrifying. It can be done, a little at a time—a very little at a time—in an enclosed school gardenspace, with extra staff or volunteers if you’re lucky and specially negotiated outdoor rules: Let’s observe small creatures without harming them. No sticks until we can all trust one another’s good intentions.

You begin to see little indications of progress this way: improved gross motor control, emerging curiosity, a sense of adventure. You still find yourself wishing you could take Outdoor Learning sessions in smaller groups. You imagine how much more you could achieve with a handful instead of a crowd. Because, like most non-academic skills, imagination and adventure are best nurtured in family-sized units rather than institutions.

And that is one of the strengths of homeschooling. Wherever you need simplicity, flexibility, spontaneity, you’re free to do what works best in the moment, provided you can start out with a few easy-to-manage activities, the possibilities will broaden as you go. Here are seven starters:

1. Sheaves of Leaves. It’s a challenge: how many different species of tree leaves can you collect? What about other kinds of leaves? Is a blade of grass a leaf?

Learning: Variety within biology.

Extension: Look online for plant-identification pages.

2. Mud Models. Collect the stickiest mud you can find, and experiment with clay modeling.

Learning: Creative use of natural materials.

Extension: Compare with artists’ clay.

3. Bug Hunt. Lift stones or open a rotting tree stump and see what you find. Slugs?

Woodlice? Millipedes? Which are insects and which are not?

Learning: Recognizing small invertebrates.

Extension: Make a terrarium in a large glass jar with damp moss, rotting wood, etc. Add a few oat flakes. Woodlice cannot climb glass and will live happily inside as long as you keep it damp but not flooded.

4. Foraging for Food. Wild blackberries are the easiest, in early autumn; mushrooms and nuts are not recommended.

Learning: Ecological awareness.

Extension: Cooking your foraged fruits.

5. Ice is Nice. If the weather where you live gets cold enough, experiment with pouring salt or water on an icy puddle, or making your own colored ice by leaving containers out at night.

Learning: Chemical states of water.

Extension: What can you do to make ice melt more slowly in a warm room? How would you turn ice into steam?

Wherever you need simplicity, flexibility, spontaneity, you’re free to do what works best in the moment.

6. Running a River. On mildly sloping ground, preferably dry dust, slowly pour water and watch it find its way downhill. Does its path change with time? Try putting obstacles in its way.

Learning: Physical geography: how rivers work.

Extension: Visit a river and look at rivers on maps, finding where they begin and end.

7. Raft Craft. (If you don’t have access to a pond, a large bucket will do.) Use sticks and other materials to float a non-buoyant load, e.g., a metal or ceramic figure.

Learning: Principles of flotation.

Extension: Try the same challenge for a lighter or heavier load. What would you need to make a raft buoyant enough to carry a person?

Probably you can already think of variations and links to further areas of the curriculum. And it doesn’t have to be too finely structured. It’s worthwhile to include time for free play in every outdoor lesson, and observe what your children pursue when given open choice. My sons loved breaking an icy puddle in winter, throwing a big shard of ice upwards, and hitting it mid-air with a stick for a spectacular shattering effect. They also loved pretend-fighting using sticks as old-fashioned swords—and never once did they hit one another. They loved picnics, even if it was just a snack taken outdoors. And, as young adults, they have both become aware of how outdoor time supports their personal wellbeing … and that is a lesson that I hope will last them for life.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine. Republished with permission.

Fiona M. Jones is a parent, part-time teacher and spare-time writer. Her creative work has appeared in literary magazines and anthologies all over the world, and her short pieces related to outdoor education are visible on Mothers Always Write and Mum Life Stories.